Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! & Highlights of 2010’s Reading

Happy new year, dear blog readers! I hope you find lots of enjoyable books, new and old, to read in 2011!

I’ve enjoyed starting this blog in 2010: it’s been a fun way to meet new reader friends and keep me reading English-language fiction after a six-year stretch of reading mostly Russian-language novels. It’s nice to get caught up on the rest of the world! Here are some highlights from my 2010 reading:

Two favorite translated books: I read a lot of translated fiction, so couldn’t choose just one! I particularly enjoyed these two: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador (previous post), thanks to wonderfully absurd situations and references to Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and Alain Mabanckou’s one-sentence Broken Glass (previous post), thanks to its narrator’s storytelling, humor and irreverence. (These review copies came courtesy of, respectively, Open Letter and Soft Skull.)

Favorite book by a Maine writer: I still have a good feeling when I think of Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters!, a thoroughly enjoyable novel about life under the threat of apocalypse. I loved it. (previous post)

Other favorite book written in English: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go starts slowly but builds momentum as it look at moral questions related to how we live and die. (I’m being vague here because I don’t want to reveal too much.) It’s beautifully put together, and the end is crushing. (previous post)

What’s on the way for 2011? I don’t make goals or resolutions for anything but I’m especially looking forward to a couple of review titles on the shelf: Copenhagen Noir, a collection of short stories, and Tim Davys’s Tourquai, a Swedish crime novel about stuffed animals. The books came from Akashic and Harper Collins, respectively.

I’m also looking forward to the Eastern Europe Reading Challenge that Amy is hosting on The Black Sheep Dances. I’m going to try to read something from every country on her list… Some countries – especially Russia – already have big presences on my shelves, but others, like Moldova and Latvia, will be new for me. I’m hoping the challenge will encourage me to finally read a few of the books that have been waiting in my bookcases for years, like Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories and Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game.

That’s it for this year! Thank you for all your visits and comments. I’ll be back again soon in 2011, whenever I finish Mathias Énard’s Zone, a book that takes some time. I enjoy it but the one-sentence structure requires considerable concentration, which results in short spurts of reading. Happy new year to all!

Sparkler photo from raichinger, via

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Blizzards of Words as I Await a Blizzard of Snow

We have a blizzard warning here in Maine today, and the snow is just starting to fall as I get ready to post this entry: I always get excited for the first big snow of the year! I don’t have a book report for you this week because I’m only a third through Mathias Énard’s Zone, which Charlotte Mandell translated from the French… it’s quite a book, more about war, ancient and contemporary, than anything else, at least so far, and it’s (mostly) written as one big, long sentence. I’m enjoying it very, very much: it’s a tremendous piece of work with endless references to history and literature.

I probably wouldn’t have even posted today if the essay in today’s New York Times Book Review hadn’t been Ed Park’s “One Sentence Says It All,” about one-sentence books, those wordy storms that used to scare the hell out of me. Park includes Zone in his piece, but I was sorry he didn’t mention another one-sentence novel I read earlier this year, Alain Mabanckou’s very readable and funny Broken Glass, translated from the French by Helen Stevenson. It was perfect training for Zone! (previous post)

Since I’m here, I’ll also post the link to Robert Hanks’s rather negative opinion of Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, which I wrote about in November here. Though I had mixed feelings about the book and agree with some, perhaps even many, of Hanks’s criticisms – yes, “Ervin’s writing is often overwrought” and there were definitely “gratuitous cultural references” in the book – I thought he missed the whole point of Extraordinary Renditions. Freedom: I thought Ervin’s book presented variations on the theme of freedom. I’d also like to point out that Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances, who sent me her copy of Extraordinary Renditions this fall, wrote about the book, here, way, way back in late August!

Up Next: Favorites from 2010 and the afore-mentioned Zone

Disclosure: Thank you to Open Letter’s Chad Post, who is always a great source of information about translated fiction, for the review copy of Zone.

Photo credit: “Snow Texture” from penywise, via (I’m hoping we get nice, light snow like this…)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Not Enough Mystery in Secret Son

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son was a frustrating book for me to read: I’m glad it addresses the big, messy topic of youth, economic issues, and Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco, but I was disappointed that the book felt so neat. Lalami’s basic plot concerns Youssef, a student who grew up in a slum with his single mother. Youssef finds out from a magazine that his father, whom his mother told him died, is alive. And a successful businessman. Youssef goes to his father’s office and they develop a relationship; the father gives Youssef a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, an Islamic organization establishes a presence in Youssef’s old neighborhood.

I love writerly precision but Secret Son felt too controlled, almost surgical, for my taste. Lalami writes very well – it’s difficult to believe she grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and French rather than English – and I’m glad she included Moroccan Arabic words, foods, and other specifics in Secret Son to give her timeless themes a concrete setting. But I felt like she was holding back, writing too tight a book and avoiding risks. The pages turned but I kept yearning for a bigger emotional and intellectual challenge: the characters felt predictably trapped in their situations and social classes, and coincidences, foreseeable coincidences, played a huge role in the book.

I was especially disappointed at Youssef’s fate, and his friends’ parts in it, at the end of the book: the ending seemed to fit current events or a plot outline more than the fictional characters named Youssef, Amin, and Maati. A positive: I liked Lalami’s emphasis on Youssef’s idea that people are actors.

I should emphasize that I found Secret Son disappointing rather than, say, “bad” or “boring” or unlikable. It’s solidly constructed and readable, and it’s a sincere look at contemporary problems in Northern Africa. Boston Bibliophile provides a more positive take on Secret Son here; Marie interviewed Laila Lalami here.

Holiday Gift Ideas: If you’re still looking for a happy holiday gift book, I have two suggestions from this year’s reading. For a book written in English: Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! (here). For a book translated into English, Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (here). Of course even my “happy” books have dark sides but I thought both of these novels were fun and memorable.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Secret Son at Book Expo America from Algonquin Books. Thank you!

Up Next: I’m not sure. Perhaps, or maybe probably, Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea.

Photo of Casablanca from mco4684, via

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wandering Frankfurt, Testing Shoes and Life

I think I’d categorize Wilhelm Genazino’s The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt (Philip Boehm’s translation of Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag, literally An Umbrella for this Day) using a phrase that might, at first, sound oxymoronic: a short, rather humorous novel about an existential crisis.

Genazino’s narrator is shoe tester who tells his anonymous, first-person story with anecdotes that bring levity to what might otherwise be a rather dreary and uneventful story. He and his girlfriend have split up and his job consists of walking around Frankfurt wearing shoes and then writing reports about the shoes’ performance. During his meanderings, he sees lots of acquaintances, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance. Just, please, don’t ask him about his childhood memories! That seems to chafe him more than a pair of ill-fitting shoes.

So yes, our wandering narrator is experiencing a bit of a mid-life existential crisis and he conveys his thoughts in detail that some, perhaps many, of us might call TMI. Early on, he says he’s no longer very young, particularly in the feet: “Whenever I look at my naked feet, they’re about fifteen years older than the rest of me. I study the veins that stick out so prominently, the ankles swollen like cushions, and the toenails that are growing harder and harder and taking on that sulfurous yellow color characteristic of the no longer very young. No longer very young!”

There’s an interesting irony to this outpouring of podiatric information and all the other intimate details in the book, some related to the ostensibly taboo topic of childhood: our man on the street tells us a few pages after the foot description that he doesn’t always want to talk. In fact, he’d like to implement a silence schedule in his life: Mondays and Tuesdays, for example, would demand “non-stop silence,” and Fridays and Saturdays would allow for “unrestrained chitchat.” Sundays: “total silence.” The essence of his problem is that his inner world and the world around him don’t quite mesh. Hence the wandering. And the necessity of good shoes.

What amazes me most about The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is that it works, quite nicely. I’ll admit I had my doubts about all the micro-level introspection at the start but the narrator’s charming, off-beat humor – the afore-mentioned silence schedule, the mention that his shoe company boss likes to talk about model trains, and naming his melancholy Gertrude Gloom – prevented the book from diving into a deep, dark, dull cave. As do the narrator’s Institute for Memory Arts and a bit of a carnival, complete with “a spectacle of light,” at the rather happy end of the book.

Disclosure: I received The Shoe Tester as a gift from a blog reader and new friend who works in a bookstore. Thank you very much! I know the publisher, New Directions, through discussions about translated literature.

Up Next: Laila Lalami’s Secret Son.

Footwear photo from Sarnil, via

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bite Here, Hold the Garlic: Matt Haig’s The Radleys

Matt Haig’s The Radleys – a British vampire novel pulsing with lots of blood and deadpan humor, but not too much gore – was just the right, light book to take me out of my reading slump. This story of a British vampire couple who live in an upscale neighborhood, abstain from blood, and hide their vampire identity from their own teenage children, is a fun blend of social commentary, comic relief, and horror.

Haig’s novel revolves around four main characters: father Peter is a doctor (ooh, those blood samples!), mother Helen seems to enjoy her book club, daughter Clara is a newbie vegan, and son Rowan is an outcast at school. Peter and Helen’s flashy London past included some high-flying bloodsucking, much of which ended badly for the suckees. Now, however, they are successful small-town homeowners who’s kicked their bloody habits: they keep a copy of The Abstainer’s Handbook in the house but have tossed out their books written by vampires. Haig includes several lists of musicians, writers, and actors that his characters say were vampires; a bit of this is funny – I can accept Jimi Hendrix and Lord Byron as vampires but Van Morrison?! – though some of it feels a bit forced.

Despite ample family dysfunction, everything’s okay at the Radleys’ until Clara goes to a party and has an encounter with a drunk and disorderly boy. Then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose within the family and the community. Worst of all, Peter’s brother, Will, comes to visit. The kids didn’t know Will existed, and Will and Hellen (Freudian slip there, I guess) have some unfinished business. Will is an active bloodsucker with something of a reputation in Manchester. He’s part of a parallel world in which vampires are allowed to be vampires as long as they behave.

What’s most fun about The Radleys is that, at its core, it’s a horror story about what happens when people conform too tightly to societal standards. In the chapter called “Repression Is in Our Veins,” Rowan tells Clara that they are middle-class Brits, thus naturals at repressing themselves. Clara’s not sure she’s good at that.

Haig’s solution to the impasse between bloodless conformity and bloodsucking individualism is to write an ending that’s happy for nearly everyone. Moderation, it seems, is a virtue for all of us, fangéd or unfangéd. My assessment of The Radleys is also happily moderate: a bit slow at the start but fun, light reading that’s not mindless. I like that. The Radleys has been marketed in the U.K. for both YA and adult readers; I think it would make for great family reading and discussion.

Update: The Radleys won an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Alex Awards recognize "adult books that appeal to teen audiences." (press release with list)

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Radleys from Simon & Schuster/Free Press at Book Expo America. Thank you! (The U.S. release date is listed on Amazon as December 28, 2010.)

Up Next: The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, Wilhelm Genazino’s short existential novel about a man who, yes, tests shoes.

Garlic photo credit: davidlat, via